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Refugee Voices

Something to Be Thankful For: USCRI's New National Program Benefits Victims of Human Trafficking

This Thanksgiving, Rissa Obcemea will have no problem coming up with a list of things to be thankful for.  That’s because Rissa, a Program Officer with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), is reminded every single day how fortunate she is.  She has the ability to move freely from place to place, to laugh with friends at a café in the sunshine, to pursue a career of her choosing and be paid for the work she performs, and to envision a future filled with possibility.

Rissa is keenly aware of her good fortune because the men, women, and children she serves through USCRI’s new National Human Trafficking Victim Assistance Project had their freedoms taken away from them.  These individuals – all victims of human trafficking – were intimidated, coerced, or sold into slavery in the United States.

This Thanksgiving, Rissa will remember the story of Katya, who after a decade of utter hopelessness finally has something to be thankful for.

After graduating high school in 2001, Katya jumped at the chance to visit her cousin in the United States.  She obtained a U.S. visa, hugged her friends goodbye, and geared up for the vacation of a lifetime.  But just days after landing in the United States, Katya’s vacation would turn into a decade-long nightmare.

Soon after arriving in rural Nevada, Katya’s cousin stole her passport, the only identification she possessed, and beat her brutally.  When she awoke from the savage beating, Katya found herself in the locked room of a stranger’s house.  She then discovered her shocking fate: she had been sold into domestic slavery.

Katya cooked and cleaned all day, sometimes having to perform domestic labor for her captor’s friends.  Keeping her in further isolation was the fact that Katya had no English skills and no way of escaping, since she didn’t know how to drive and public transportation was nonexistent.  Her captor regularly raped her and forced Katya to carry two pregnancies to term, resulting in the birth of her two children.  Katya loved her children, but knew that she was bringing them up in an environment filled with fear, physical harm, and a dark cloud of hopelessness. 

Hidden away in cramped quarters and faced with regular abuse, Katya’s health quickly declined.  Eventually, her captor had no choice but to take her to a local hospital where, despite vicious threats, Katya managed to talk to an interpreter about her ordeal and connect with local victim’s advocates.  Once she received the medical attention and physical protection she desperately needed, Katya and her children were set up at a domestic violence shelter.  While the shelter provided the family with a roof over their heads and basic necessities, it lacked the expertise to know what additional services Katya, as a victim of human trafficking, would need.  That’s where USCRI and Rissa stepped in.

As soon as she was made aware of Katya’s case, Rissa took swift action.  Rissa became a regular on phone calls with the domestic violence shelter and attorney, arranging the services and tools that Katya and her children needed to begin rebuilding their lives.  Through her efforts, Katya received specialized medical and mental health services, an English tutor, driving classes, vocational training, immigration services, and help in locating stable housing.  Rissa worked closely with the domestic violence shelter to ensure that Katya and her children had everything they needed to start over.  Along the way, Katya gained something else she thought she’d lost forever: hope.

Restoring hope is exactly why USCRI started its new project to help men, women, and children like Katya.  Human trafficking, a type of modern-day slavery that includes sexual exploitation and forced labor, affects thousands of men, women, and children in the United States every year.  Individuals who have escaped horrific circumstances benefit from dedicated anti-human trafficking specialists like Rissa, who work to ensure that their specific needs are met and that a brighter future lies ahead.

Thanks to USCRI, and Rissa’s tireless commitment to her clients, Katya and other victims of human trafficking are slowly putting the pieces of their lives back together.  Now these victims can join all of us in celebrating this uniquely American holiday since they will be giving thanks for a new life and new liberty.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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USCRI's National Human Trafficking Victim Assistance Project >>

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